Ergotism and the Salem Witch Trials
Some scholars assert that the mass hysteria in Massachusetts in the 17th century could have been triggered by a common fungus.
The events are familiar to most Americans and have been dramatized dozens of times on stage, page and film. The tragic episode was set into motion in 1692 by the strange behavior of two young girls, and snowballed into a panic of almost unbelievable proportions. The Salem Witch Trials, as they came to be known, lacked the staggering body count of many of the European witch hunts; nonetheless the series of events was sufficiently dire to cause many people then and now to question how such a thing could have happened.
An Overview of the Salem Witch Panic
It was February 1692. Nine-year-old Betty Parris and her eleven-year-old cousin Abigail Williams suddenly began displaying bizarre behavior akin to epileptic fits. They screamed and raved, twisted their bodies into strange positions, and complained that an unseen assailant was pinching and pricking them. Doctors were called to examine the girls, but no physical cause could be found for their distress, and what was worse, when word of the girls’ mysterious ailment spread through Salem village, other girls began behaving in a similar fashion.
At this point, authorities had raised suspicions of witchcraft, and Betty and Abigail obligingly pointed accusing fingers at a slave girl named Tituba, who they claimed had taught them spells for seeing into the future. Other accusations followed, and more “victims” came forward, accusing still others. When all was said and done, the hysteria had spread across three counties and resulted in the arrest of more than 150 people, twenty of whom were eventually executed for witchcraft. What possible reason could there have been for such a terrible tragedy to unfold? Many theories have been put forth, but Professor Linda Caporael, in 1976, suggested we need look no further than the Salem villagers’ breadboxes.
Ergot a Poisonous Fungus, Catalyst for Accusations
In a 1976 article inScience, Caporael theorized that the initial catalyst for the witch craze — the seemingly “possessed” behavior of Betty, Abigail, and the other girls — could have been caused by a reaction to ergot. There are about fifty known species of the ergot fungus, but the one Caporael implicated in the witch panic was Claviceps pupurea, which grows on rye plants and can cause poisoning when consumed by humans or other mammals. If indeed the girls had eaten bread contaminated with ergot, they could have experienced symptoms that were perceived as possession: Seizures, a sensation of itching or crawling on the skin, muscular contractions, nausea, and even hallucinations, triggered by an alkaloid called ergotamine, which is similar in structure to LSD.
Caporael argued that not only were the symptoms of ergotism consistent with those noted in the victims of the “bewitchment,” but that the area around Salem grew a great deal of rye, and that climatic conditions were favorable to the growth of the ergot fungus. It would not even have been necessary for all of the “victims” to have been afflicted with ergotism; a few cases might have started the ball rolling, and psychological and sociological factors could have accomplished the rest.
Arguments Against the Ergot Theory
Many scholars have disputed the claims that ergotism played a major role in the witch panic. Historians Jack Gottlieb and Nicholas Spanos, for example, contend that had ergotism been responsible for the accusers’ symptoms, we should have expected to see members of entire households afflicted, rather than just a few individuals here and there. They also argue that ergotism has other symptoms that do not correspond with the recorded behavior of the “bewitched” persons. Finally, they and other scholars have pointed out that ergotism had been a recognized malady at least since the Middle Ages; it even had a name, St. Anthony’s Fire. Anthropologist H. Sidley in particular doubted whether authorities in Salem in the 17th century would have mistaken the supposedly familiar symptoms of ergot poisoning with signs of supernatural possession.
Despite the voluminous research on the subject, the exact causes of the Salem witch panic are still murky. It is not controversial to speculate that the episode was probably triggered by an unfortunate cascade of converging factors—social, political, psychological, and perhaps pharmacological.
Macinnis, Peter (2004). Poisons: A History From Hemlock To Botox. MJF Books. ISBN 1-56731-814-2.